I stumbled upon Jim and Casper Go to Church (Frank Conversation about Faith, Churches, and Well-Meaning Christians) in a blog posting over at Supersimbo. Having bought it off Amazon and read it while on holiday in early July, I left my annotated copy (the odd scribble and lots of page corners turned in for further thinking) behind with our Swiss hosts to read. So this review has been a while in coming.
Jim’s a Christian. But he wonders about church. Wonders about what it was meant to be? Wonders about what it has become? Wonders what it’s like for new people when (if) they step across the threshold into the liturgy and choreography of a congregation?
So he hires Casper, an articulate, musical, copywriting atheist to join him on a tour of twelve US churches, some of them well known brands even here in Europe. By the way, Casper could make a fortune speaking in churches about his experiences on the tour (and elsewhere) ... though I guess he may not want to!
In a world of seeker sensitivity, servant evangelism, cell church and contagious Christians, what would they find?
The resulting dialogue between the pair is intriguing and pretty challenging. Casper is unimpressed with pizzazz and showmanship, and uncomfortable with saccharine handshaking welcomes and the forced emotion that keeps appearing at the end of sermons.
As a newcomer and an atheist, why is it that pastors apologise to Casper that he’ll not understand everything said this week? Is he not part of the target audience. Why all the talk about believing and having faith, when some of the congregations appear so reluctant to do anything with their faith? Where’s the talk about local community and making a difference in peoples’ lives?
- “How is the Word of God integrated into practical examples of living the faith?”
- “What prior knowledge and belief does the church assume attendees possess?”
- “Is the church more interested in conversation or conversion? In dialogue or debate?”
At the intersection of Saddleback Drive and Purpose Drive, Rick Warren’s church had
“an artificial replica of Jesus’ tomb with a rock parked in the front door ... locked with a large bike lock and chain.
‘Well, I hope they unlock it in time for Easter,’ Casper said.”
It’s not just the set dressing that rings alarm bells. The pair move on to Willow Creek, where Bill Hybels has stepped back and handed over to new leadership; a church situated in a predominantly white area of the US. Casper notices that while the church membership is a sea of white faces, the on-stage band is “the United Colors of Benetton” … something that Casper perceives as a “false inclusiveness”.
“As we walked out of the service, Casper put it plainly once more: ‘Just follow ... Following is a means, not an end. Do all these people doing the following have any idea where they’re going or what they’ll do when they get there?’”
While Saddleback has created opportunities for serving and in-community participation, there was little mention of it during the church service that Jim and Casper attended, diminishing the impact of the message they heard.
Attending First Presbyterian Church of River Forest in Chicago, they were surprised that no one was curious enough about two guys sitting typing on laptops during the service to come over to greet them!
Maybe the place that made the
biggest best impression was Lawndale Community Church, also in Chicago (just ten minutes drive from First Presbyterian). It was hard to pick out the humble church entrance on the street given the larger health center, pizza restaurant and day-care center in the way: all part of Lawndale’s work and outreach.
Lawndale have moved away from the Three Bs (buildings, budgets and butts in seats) to the Three Rs (relocation, reconciliation and redistribution).
“... church attendance averages a respectable five hundred, their budget matches a church of five thousand and reveals another story that can’t be measured by worship attendance. They get much of their income from the same sources other non-profits do: grants, subsidized loans, and sales of the properties they develop. And all the money gets plowed [sic] back into the Lawndale Development Corporation.”
The book also points to the value of listening and of personal relationships: in this case between Jim and Casper, as well as with the people they come into contact with along their journey. Jim and Casper’s dialogue and honesty feels like a pattern that shouldn’t be so rare in our lives.
When you get to the end of this fine book, don’t feel smug you don’t live in the US and that you don’t have a faux stone and a faux tomb in your church! Instead question whether there are patterns of behaviour and talk and action that are inaccessible to newcomers? And question whether you’ve ever asked a visitor about their experience? Better to survey visitors than try to guess for yourself. As the book asks about church:
“Is this what Jesus told you guys you do?”
If you’re involved in a church fellowship, you should read this book and then talk about it, lending it to your friends and people who sit around you in church. And then put what you’ve learnt into action.